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BorderWatch:Syria
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Zebari: Syria Reduced Infiltrators 100 to 30
Damascus Getting Positive Nods for Effort, But Will US Budge Stance?
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 12/13/2007 12:36 PM ET
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) speaks with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari following a joint press conference at the airport in Damascus, 12 December 2007.
Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (R) speaks with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari following a joint press conference at the airport in Damascus, 12 December 2007.

Gen. David Petraeus gave a rare nod of credit to Syria in November, citing its "more robust" interdiction efforts as reducing the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari gave the recent shift by Damascus as the reason for his two-day visit to Syria this week, telling the press conference at his departure from Baghdad Monday:

"We feel that there has been better regional cooperation with the Iraqi government in terms of flow of foreign fighters, of terrorists, of assistance and interventions -- this is due to the steps that the government has taken to engage our neighbours constructively," Zebari said.

"For that purpose, I will travel today to Damascus, to Syria, in response to an invitation, just to emphasize that point."

Zebari spread the praise around once in Damascus, telling every public appearance of Syria's efforts in contributing to the security of Iraq, and getting specific on the numbers with the London-based newspaper al-Hayat.

In an interview published Thursday in al-Hayat, Zebari said "The number of infiltrators was ranging between 80 to 100 every month and lowered to 30, which does mean border sneaking still exists."

"Our aim is to reach zero infiltrators," Zibari also said, adding that Assad's regime also recognizes the risk to Syria of the armed groups.

"From the very beginning we said that security, economic, and trade cooperation between the two countries could not be established without a political will and accepting the new political reality in Iraq," the foreign minister continued.

The continuing low-level of infiltrations may be an unavoidable reality, and one that doesn't look likely to disrupt the neighboring countries' ever-increasing ties.

Iraq and Syria restored diplomatic relations a year ago after 26 years of estrangement, sparked by Saddam Hussein's cutting of ties after Syria supported Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq. Zebari said the two nations would soon name ambassadors.

The Iraqi government has worked to break the chill between the US government and Iran--with the next round of lower-level security talks set to take place next week--and Zebari mentioned his hopes to see a future meeting between American and Syrian officials.

The paper also reported Iraqi Vice President Burham Saleh would travel to Damascus on Sunday to continue talks on economic cooperation, including the new plans revealed during Zebari's visit to reopen the oil pipeline from Kirkuk to Baniyas, which has been closed since 2003.

With the increasing level of economic interdependence that will result from the reopening of the Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline and Zebari's invitation for Syrian companies to get involved in Iraq's reconstruction, the ties between Damascus and Baghdad look certain to grow stronger.

This trend will encourage Syria to continue working to exercise control over its porous border, which will please the US, but the Americans may not take much pleasure in the diplomatic and economic engagement of their regional foe.

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